Sermon for Trinity Sunday

+In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

It’s that most wonderful day of the church year where you are subjected to my dense ramblings about the most difficult concept in Christian theology to understand or explain, so let me start with a bit of silly self-disclosure. It is, in fact, a bit of a confession. I am not alone in being “geeky” about both Church history and about things more traditionally called “geeky”: Star Trek and Dungeons and Dragons and things of that nature. For whatever reason, I am friends with lots of clergy around my age who have similarly combined church-nerdery and science-fiction, fantasy, and gaming “fandom.”

So, my confession is that my online handle, my username, on Twitch and Discord–the primary platforms where people stream their videogame and tabletop game content and chat about it live–is “Quicunque Vult”, the first two words and Latin title for what is traditionally called the Athanasian Creed. Occasionally I will leave a comment during a livestream, which invariably makes some poor professional videogamer try to pronounce Quicunque Vult when he or she is playing a challenging game in front of an audience of hundreds or sometimes thousands. I hope that this is not online trolling, but rather internet evangelization, and that they will look up the Athanasian Creed as soon as they’re finished with their livestreamed game session. Perhaps the chances of that are slim, but I live in hope.

Now, I realize that while its unlikely that any given professional gamer will have heard of the Athanasian Creed, it may (unfortunately) be similarly unlikely that even a life-long churchgoer will have been exposed to it either, unless they had a particularly pedantic priest teach their Confirmation class. In the old days, and still in the Church of England where they have retained the 1662 Book of Common Prayer, the faithful would have recited the Athanasian Creed instead of the Apostles’ Creed several times a year, including on Christmas, Epiphany, Easter, and Pentecost. Naturally, they’d also recite it on Trinity Sunday (the Feast we observe today), because it is the earliest expression of the fullness of our Trinitarian belief as Christians. It is in our prayerbooks on page 864, and while I am sore tempted to have us recite it in full this morning, I won’t for two reasons. First, it’s in remarkable small print in our prayerbook which, as somebody with premature presbyopia, I can understand would be a difficulty for some. Second, because the bishop has been in recent years less inclined to grant me permission to stray from the rubrics, I reckoned there was about a 95% chance he’d say “no” if I asked to substitute the Athanasian for the Nicene Creed today, and I decided it wasn’t worth getting him irritated at me over it. That said, I commend it to you for your edification after church (or now, if this sermon is getting too much in the weeds for you).

The TLDR (“too long, didn’t read”) synopsis of the Creed is this: the Christian faith is defined dogmatically (that is to say in its essential doctrine, not in the pejorative sense we sometimes associate with the word “dogmatic” these days) by its understanding that God is three persons in one substance, or essential reality. If that sounds confusing, it’s because it is, it’s ultimately a mystery, but we do have some language given by God in Scripture to get close to the divine meaning. Each of these persons–Father, Son, and Holy Spirit–is equal in glory and majesty, in being eternal and uncreated, and in being almighty and ultimately incomprehensible.

They are distinguished not by rank or activity (it is not, as I’ve said in previous Trinity Sunday, sermons that there is a division of labor within the Godhead) but, rather, firstly by the fact that the second person of the Trinity (the Son) is eternally begotten of the Father–that the First Person of the Trinity is in some sense the origin or font of what the Church Fathers called Deitas or “godhood” from whom the Son eternally received the same–and, secondly, that the Third Person of the Trinity (the Holy Spirit) proceeds from the First and Second Persons, that he is sent by the other two.

Now that’s a lot of theological hair-splitting, which is among my favorite pastimes, but you may well ask what the point is. The point, I think, is that the Holy Trinity is defined not by the way we human beings typically, sadly define our relationships in a transactional way–who’s job is this or that; who’s in charge of whom–but rather by preëxistent, equitable relationships of perfect love and by mutual mission (sending) to accomplish the divine will. Thus, the mystery of the Trinity is the heart of the Christian community as God intends it to function. That is to say that the mission of God, the Trinitarian Mission, is the model for the Church’s mission.

We are all one body, individually members of it, and equally redeemed and worthy. Love is the only principle by which our relationships within that body should be defined. And this love naturally leads to mission, to sending. Just as the Father’s love necessitated the sending of the Son to redeem the world and the love they shared, which is the Holy Spirit, inevitably led to that same Spirit’s being poured out upon all flesh that Good News might be spread to the ends of the earth, so should our unity in love inevitably lead to apostleship, to going out to be heralds of the Gospel in a world for whom that Good News is its only hope.

What is the alternative? Church history, I contend, shows us that treating the revealed truth of God’s Triune nature as a matter for merely rational debate, for deconstruction, naturally leads to a worldview in which the individual is entirely on his own to save himself, and anybody with a robust sense of one’s own sin-nature and status as redeemed by Christ alone, knows this to be an exercise in futility. We have seen this transition before over the course of just a few hundred years, a relatively short period in the context of the Church’s history, and you’ll forgive my somewhat unecumenical tone here, which I hope you know I only take when the issue at stake is essential to Christian belief and practice.

Both in England and in this country, the Puritans began by attempting to purge our church of its Catholic content, including, eventually, the dogmatic statements of the Church Fathers, Creeds included. Having purged their version of the church of its universal birthright, some took theological expurgation as the primary mode of religious discourse. Thus they attempted to cast off revealed truth as a whole, in favor of only that which could stand up to the assumptions of Enlightenment-era reason. The first thing to go was the Doctrine of the Trinity, and one was left with Unitarianism (our famous 18th Century American Deists being, for all intents and purposes, a subset of the same). Eventually, the great majority of these Unitarians came to the logically-necessary end of this project of theological-sloughing, and “purified” the church of the “presumption” of making any claim whatsoever about the truth or falsity of any theological proposition, adopting “Universalism”, which is really a euphemism for claiming that religion must merely be a personal aesthetic choice rather than any kind of consistent, commonly held belief system.

Now, I’ve known some Unitarian Universalists over the years, and they’ve mostly been perfectly nice people attempting to live moral lives. But, it seems to me an awfully lonely way to live, to believe the point of religion is to make some kind of meaning for myself–just for myself lest I presume to push it on somebody else–in a seemingly meaningless world, without recourse to saying “this is true (or false)” without adding the codicil “for me.” This strikes me as making the statement meaningless at best, and probably of making the whole endeavor of finding meaning itself inherently, ironically meaningless. All of this is to make the bold claim (about which somebody, not me, should write a monograph) that the road to theological perdition begins with the rejection of the Trinity and ends with being incapable of saying anything meaningful about religion at all.

So, today, we give thanks for, of all things, a theological concept. Lest we be tempted by the spirit of the age to claim that a theological claim is neither here nor there, that it is an entirely private matter, we can set our hope on the proposition that there are at least a few that change everything about how we live our lives and how we find meaning and purpose as individuals and as a community. God made everything and called it good. God came among us and died for us and rose again. God enlightens and inspires and strengthens us to live in love and to spread that love to all. These claims are either true or false, not just “for me” but for the whole world. Believing them to be true changes everything for the better in this life and gives us the assurance of even greater things in the next.

+In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Sermon for Pentecost

+In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

You may have hear preachers say that their job is to comfort the afflicted and to afflict the comfortable. It’s a clever juxtaposition, but it is often repeated without reference to the phrase’s originator, Finley Peter Dunne– an American humorist in the late 19th and early 20th century–who used it in reference not to preachers but to journalists. Nor do these preachers often acknowledge the fact that Dunne used the phrase ironically to call out the hypocrisy of the muckraking newspapermen of his day.

In any event, whether or not the preacher can genuinely succeed in this two-fold task is up for debate and, frankly, I think it depends chiefly on how much he or she simply relies on Scripture to do the heavy-lifting in this regard. That said, I believe the action of God the Holy Spirit (not a preacher or a journalist or any other human being) does work to “comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable” or to use the language of the prayerbook, to “strengthen the faithful [and] arouse the careless.”

On this feast of Pentecost, when we celebrate the coming of that Spirit and his abiding presence with us, we must be careful to keep both of these divine missions in mind.

Our lessons from Acts and the Gospel for this morning focus on the latter: the apostles are given the miraculous ability to preach the Gospel to the nations in various tongues and Jesus tells the Apostles that the Spirit will come to aid them in doing the works prepared for them. It makes sense that this is our lectionary’s focus; it speaks to our cultural reality of comfortable, nominal Christianity in which we so often need the Spirit to lift us out of complacency and give us power and passion to do God’s work in the world: whether that is the work of evangelization or service to the needy or exercising leadership within the church, or any one of a host of other active vocations within the Body of Christ to which that same Spirit calls us.

But, perhaps this Pentecost the more important focus is that which is somewhat absent from those lessons but is present in our Epistle, in which Paul reminds the Romans that the Spirit will remain with them in their sufferings-that the Spirit has also come to comfort the afflicted and strengthen the faithful. I won’t belabor this, because I said it last week: but between pandemic, war, and mass shootings we may feel very much in need now, as individuals and as a society, of the comfort and peace which the Holy Spirit can bring us.

In the midst of this frightening, gloomy reality there is no doubt that we should pray for and permit the Holy Spirit to stir up in us the will and means to take faithful action. Even so, I think we must first ask that same Spirit to comfort and console us, lest our action be motivated by wrath or judgment rather than literal inspiration (the Spirit dwelling in us to guide us).

So today, perhaps, our prayer should simply be that the the Spirit’s consolation be forthcoming. Jesus promised this during his farewell discourse, recorded in John’s Gospel, particularly in the fourteenth chapter of the same:

And I will pray the Father, and he shall give you another Comforter, that he may abide with you for ever; Even the Spirit of Truth … I will not leave you comfortless: I will come to you … [T]he Comforter, which is the Holy Ghost, whom the Father will send in my name, he shall teach you all things, and bring all things to your remembrance, whatsoever I have said unto you. Peace I leave with you, my peace I give unto you: not as the world giveth, I give unto you. Let not your heart be troubled, neither let it be afraid.

The word Jesus uses here is παράκλητος (Paraclete), which we might render more literally in English as “the one called alongside.” You see, the Spirit of God, the Church teaches, is not some phantasm or mere force (hence more modern bible translations and liturgical texts preferring “Spirit” to “Ghost” for the third person of the Trinity, though I don’t know whether or not that choice actually succeeds in clarifying the point).

The Holy Spirit or Holy Ghost is, rather, a person, just as much as the Father and the Son, and he comes along side us just as he dwells in us, to help us when no other helper can be found. And St. Paul tells us, in his Epistle to the Romans, in those words with which I ended last week’s sermon, that even when we cannot pray–when we are so sad or angry or frightened or exhausted that we cannot even put our feelings into language–the same Spirit prays in and for us “with sighs to deep for words.”

Come, then, Holy Spirit to us now. Pray for us when we cannot pray. Comfort us when no other comforter is near. Give us strength and courage to meet the days ahead. Help us to trust in the Father’s will, in the Son’s intercession on our behalf, and in your own abiding presence with us now. Give us those gifts that have been promised to aid us in our work for the Kingdom and hope for the Kingdom that has yet to be revealed. At the last, bring us to that place where with the Father and the Son, you too live and reign to the ages of ages. Amen.

Sermon for the Seventh Sunday of Easter

+In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

I mentioned in both my extemporaneous homily on Ascension Thursday and at Sue Bowman’s funeral yesterday, that we find ourselves in a peculiar time in the church calendar–Ascensiontide: a season within the Easter season which highlights the great tension we Christians have all the time, namely the concomitant truths that Christ has conquered sin and death and yet sin and death are still with us. Christ reigns over all from the right hand of the Father and yet in a very real sense the nations have not been brought fully into his fold. Just like the apostles had this strange ten day period between Christ leaving earth and his sending the Holy Spirit to comfort and empower them, so do we live in a strange period between Christ’s Resurrection on the one hand and his second coming and the General Resurrection on the other.

Sometimes this tension lends itself to an intellectual meditation on eschatology, on how precisely the world has changed and how it hasn’t and how that is to be understood in light of the coming glory. Other times, though, our response to this tricky reality is more emotional, and quite rightly so.

For many of us recent events–the murder of 19 children and two adults in Uvalde, Texas last week, shortly after the racist attack which killed ten people at a supermarket in Buffalo and the politically motivated attack on Taiwanese-Americans at their church in Southern California–elicits this more emotional response.

In today’s lesson from Revelation, our Lord pronounces “Behold, I am coming soon,” and sometimes in light of human tragedy and the fact that sin and death still seem to reign, our response might be more pointed than John’s seemingly joyful “Amen. Come, Lord Jesus!” Indeed, it may be for us a cry of profound grief or even anger. “Lord Jesus, we really wish you’d come back already! Where are you!?” This may be how one naturally reacts after a tragedy, whether that tragedy is personal or common, and this I think is appropriate. God is big enough to take our grief and anger, and indeed, he is capable of transforming it into something more salutary.

Perhaps the greatest thing God can give us and the whole world at this moment and in all moments which cause sorrow and pain is the one thing that seems most lacking, most needful, in our society these days: unity achieved through love. This was Jesus’ final prayer before he was handed over to death:

I do not pray for these only, but also for those who believe in me through their word, that they may all be one; even as thou, Father, art in me, and I in thee, that they also may be in us, so that the world may believe that thou hast sent me.

This, I believe, is the greatest gift the church can give the world right now. This is our witness. It is what Jesus himself tells us is the chief way people will be drawn to this peculiar life we’ve been called together to share as Christians.

Despite our differences (socially, politically, racially, economically), we love one another. We find a greater unity because we know, to use the old proverb whose origin has been misunderstood to mean precisely its opposite, that the blood of the covenant is thicker than the water of the womb. Jesus brings us together regardless of the divisions the world seeks to impose. The greatest Christian apologist and theologian of the late Second- and early Third-Centuries in th West, Tertullian, wrote that the pagans of his native Roman North Africa would say, “look at these Christians, how they love one another.” No doubt they’d say it initially with a sneer, but in the long-run the power of this witness could not be ignored.

I say this is the greatest gift the Church can give, because the world tells us, particularly after a tragedy, that this is the time to pick our corners and get ready to tear each other apart. It has become cliché to say that our nation is more divided than ever. I pray this isn’t literally true, since during at least in one period in the 1860s we seemed at least a bit more divided. That said, we’re in pretty bad shape.

The defining moment of my youth was the attack on September 11, 2001. I was 17, and perhaps I was naive but it at least seemed like folks by and large genuinely came together and tried at least for a little while to be a bit kinder, a bit more forbearing, a bit more unified despite all that divided us. One would have hoped that hundreds of thousands dying in a pandemic, the spectre of a major war in Europe for the first time in living memory for all but the most seasoned of our fellows, and now the murder of nineteen grade school children would have had the same effect. Sadly, this does not seem to be the case.

We may blame the news media. We may blame social media. We may blame the fact that we live in a far lonelier society today, the institutions of civil society (from churches to civic clubs to bowling leagues) losing people to the choice to sit at home alone watching television or doom-scrolling on twitter. Whatever the proximate cause of this sickness, the ultimate cause is sin, the fallen-ness of our nature, and the only cure is unity brought about by love in the face of all that the power of evil employs to try to keep us apart.

Don’t get me wrong. There are two things which this does not imply. On the one hand it does not imply unanimity. It does not mean we have to agree on everything, even big hot button issues that tend to get us riled up. You all know what those issues are. On the other hand, it does not imply cheap grace, the idea that none of what divides us matters; that we can just have the Proud Boys and the Nation of Islam sit in a drum circle and play hacky-sack and sing kumbaya without repenting of evil and all will be peachy.

So, we may continue to pray, whether in joy or sorrow, “Come, Lord Jesus” and one day that prayer will be answered. But in the meantime, we have a job to do, because love takes work. It takes work to disabuse ourselves (or rather to let the Holy Spirit in us disabuse us) of the notion that we must like everything about our neighbor in order to love him. But it’s worth it, because by this the world will see how these Christians love one another in the midst of a world defined by nastiness and hate. And when we don’t know what else to do, or even how to pray in the face of grief and rage and the power of evil, St. Paul tells us, that the Holy Spirit intercedes for us, praying in our hearts with sighs too deep for words.

+In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.